Civil Engineering Education under coronavirus

In one sense, this is nothing new. I’ve deliberately used ‘coronavirus’ rather than ‘Covid-19’ in the title, as a reminder that we have had the common cold forever. We keep getting it, it’s difficult to avoid, and immunity doesn’t last. It’s looking likely that immunity from Covid-19 won’t last either. This could mean we all face annual immunisations, because Covid 19 is much more dangerous than the common cold. We’re beginning to learn about some of its less common effects, including serious heart damage. This too is nothing new. Until those vaccinations are available, restrictions on what we do are obviously sensible. Here in the UK, we would have had far fewer deaths had lockdown and especially quarantine and contact-tracing been imposed at the same time as in more enlightened countries. It might even be possible for places like Australia and New Zealand to prevent the virus reaching their largely unexposed populations, at least until vaccines are available, but it seems likely that it will get everywhere eventually. And if it isn’t Covid-19, it might be Covid-20, or Covid-25. As many have said, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened, and it will only be a matter of time before it happens again. In the meantime, life needs to go on somehow. As civil engineers are accustomed to doing, we’ve got to find a way of achieving what needs to be done with an acceptable level of risk. I believe that in regard to construction in general, we’ve not been that good at considering what needs to be done, as the pressure to make a living can be more powerful than the drive to sustainability, or to serve society. As in construction, so in education: I don’t think we’re as good as we should be at considering what needs to be done. I think the lockdown, and the prospect of working with a dangerous virus carelessly let loose in society, should motivate us to find some clarity about what is really necessary (you might disagree with ‘carelessly’).

So how will this affect civil engineering education? We’re still in the lockdown stage, and lots of university administrations are having to admit to a level of flexibility that has been unthinkable since the ascendancy of ‘QA’. Everyone is having to think carefully about what really matters, and from what I’ve heard they’re doing a good job – including our much-maligned administrations. In today’s language, it’s ‘programme learning outcomes’. This is OK, as long as we have in mind a broad sense of ‘learning’, but this is, I think, central to the problem we face. The idea expressed by ‘Education is what is left after you have forgotten all you have learned’ has been around for a long time. When Einstein said something along these lines he knew it was an old idea.  Universities are very good at assessing the stuff that’s forgotten, but as engineers we’re interested in the ways of thinking, the facility of understanding, the ability to imagine how things might go wrong, and to dream up new possibilities. We try to get at this through the use of programme learning outcomes, but we don’t ignore the fact that there’s stuff that civil engineering graduates actually need to know, which depends on what they’re going to be doing. Any committee can come up with a list that satisfies those around the table, but outfits that have been making a serious effort to do this properly, such as our JBM (the accrediting body for civil, structural and highway engineering in the UK), have a much broader understanding than we might realise. They’ve therefore been able to be very supportive of the efforts of civil engineering departments to do their job during the lockdown. If it were absolutely essential to be able to tick boxes to prove that a graduate has specific bits of knowledge, ability, or understanding, as represented by all those tables and ‘matrices’ that fill reams of ‘specifications’, we would all be in trouble, because being able to prove this is difficult without traditional formal exams. You could argue that what really matters is not all those specific testable things (that get forgotten unless they’re used), but the harder to assess broader abilities. Fortunately, as engineering educators, we’ve been onto this one for a while (perhaps not everyone, to be fair).  We know that out there in the real world, knowledge is acquired as it is needed, and what matters is the ability to assess that knowledge and use it judiciously, even if it’s inevitably incomplete. We help our students to develop those abilities, and the outlook that underpins them, through a curriculum that is (meant to be) far, far richer than just working through textbooks and applying mathematical analysis.

This takes us to what I think is the heart of the new problem. We can do the kind of ‘learning’ that online platforms can handle, and the kind of well-defined-problem assessments, even with lockdown, with no face-to-face contact, no peer learning, no group working. But it would be of very lmited use. It would certainly keep some of the administrators and some of the vice chancellors happy, but lots of them have a richer understanding of university education – just as lots of engineering academics do not! If your whole life has been doing well in exams, and pursuit of highly specialised research, this is understandable, I just wouldn’t want you in charge of anything beyond your own research. As departments have been moving into the on-line model, they’re starting to see just what the students lose when their ability to sit and work side by side with other students is taken away. Despite the dreams of the ‘online learning environment’ specialists, there is no substitute for actually being in the same place at the same time, and preferably less than 2m away, working on the same piece of paper.

So I believe that in the end we are just going to have to accept a level of risk. Only politicians, who don’t mind being ‘economical with the truth’, used to say things like ‘safety is paramount’, though I recognise that this pipedream is gaining ground. The reality is that in order to live, we have to take risks. Safety cannot be paramount. Important, yes, but not the most important thing. Indeed, when it comes to the crunch, having a rich and productive life would be impossible if the popular myth of ‘Health and Safety’ was true, but as we are well aware in our own profession, if you’re serious about safety and health (as the professionals working in this area are), then risks and hazards are assessed carefully, and intelligent, informed judgements are made.

Right now, we can say that students about to graduate have had a richness in their courses before lockdown that enables our broad view of programme learning outcomes to be met, whilst other students will catch up in future.  But if we go ultra-cautious, they won’t.

There’s a lot to think about. To do a proper job of educating civil engineers, I believe that we’re going to have to go back to group design projects, laboratory sessions, the proper learning interactions between students that enable them to develop depth, rather than the mere ability to pass exams. Nearly all of them have already shown they can pass exams just to get into higher education in the first place, there’s no point in just doing more of the same, especially if they’ve learned to forget it all again once they’ve passed the exam. Though we can train people to pass exams online, I don’t believe that we can educate them – especially no to be civil engineers. Being a successful civil engineer is hugely about people. Learning how to work well with a wide range of other people, especially those who might disagree with you, must be central to engineering education. Everything else that is learned is just a tool to support this ability to make communal effort, or to help develop a rich motivation to do this well, to make real and worthwhile achievements. One of the “look what we’ve learned from lockdown” ideas will be the (profitable) suggestion that we can use AI to do education, we can do things cheaply and efficiently, and so on, but it isn’t true. As I write, there’s a fuss being made about Cambridge University putting all lectures online in the coming academic year, and people tend to miss the fact that the lectures are only one element of a good education, and a minor one at that for many subjects. I think that what we CAN learn from lockdown, is that the old idea of getting notes from the lecturer’s book to the student’s book without passing through the minds of either is much less central than we might suppose, and that there ARE more efficient ways of doing that limited job, that might have he bonus of a bit more impact on the brains! All this should help us to focus on what really is important in a civil engineering education.

The Association of Civil Engineering Departments has just set up an online forum on Microsoft Teams, with the support of Warwick University. Members should be getting invitations any day now. The aim is to be able to communicate experiences and ideas, especially as lecturers prepare for the next academic year. If you are a civil engineering lecturer in the UK, you might want to ask your head of department about this. UPDATE: this is now up and running.

But what do you think about this? Please post your thoughts using the ‘Leave a reply’ box below.

Paul McCombie, May 2020

One thought on “Civil Engineering Education under coronavirus

  1. Hi Paul, I agree with you 100%. Just got funding for a PhD in architectural history at Kent Uni which has an architecture dept but no civil engineering. Nearest is Greenwich at Medway then Brighton. All facing similar issues in this new environment. Hope ACED can cooperate with others and make use of granular accreditation data to inform students about their course prospects, whether online or other forms.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: